On Love — and not just in Saudi Arabia

This is a blogpost I began in July, did not publish and never revisited until this moment. Back then I was reading this Arabic book called Love in Saudi — a text that is both sexual and daring from Page 1.

The cover of "Love in Saudi" by Ibrahim Badi

The most creative bit in the storytelling, for me, was how both the author and the protagonist seemed to be racing to tell the same story. They were competing, but although the author –by virtue of inhabiting the ‘real world’, holding the pen, and writing the narrative– seemed infinitely more superior than the persona he created, he still felt threatened.

It was a parallel narrative. The character, unaware of the presence of the author, told his story in the first person. The author, the creator if you will, told it in the third person, obsessively insisting that his side of the story was the truth, and that he will finish his account first. The character wins in the end, and we hear him till the end, as he spoke of a failed marriage, multiple relationships and a girl who thoroughly broke his heart.

The whole affair (since it meditated on the place of physical intimacy in a pre-marital albeit committed relationship in our conservative part of the world) reminded me of a short conversation I had with writer and relationship expert Marwa Rakha. I had just begun reading her book and I questioned her list of 10 things girls should be wary of in relationships with Egyptian men, mainly the issue of being perceived as “easy” or “depraved.”

It seems that many Egyptian men, or at least this is how the stereotype goes, cannot draw a line between romance and sexuality, between “using” a girl and reciprocating pure emotions, emotions that could be manifested in a touch, a hug or a kiss — for even those (from a girl’s perspective) can be platonic and pure, neither sexual nor libertine.

Of course, this perception is dependent on many factors; time invested, depth of feelings and context being a few examples. But truth be told, no matter how uptight, if you do like someone, all inhibitions may be put on hold and one may discover a new way of communicating feelings, without tripping over in speech or getting clumsy with words. And if it doesn’t contradict your personal understanding of religion, then it becomes natural, and right in every way.

But even if one believes so, you read something like what Marwa has written (and God knows she’s experienced), and the “conservatism” streak kicks in. Who wants to be thought of as ‘easy’? The word has such a stigma. And personally I hate to be misunderstood.

So I asked Marwa: “What do you think should be done then? Should a girl censor her feelings (and their physical manifestations) and put a cork on her personal beliefs so that she wouldn’t be thought ‘easy’ or ‘desperate’ or ‘confused’ or what have you?”

The doubts were magnified and a stream of questions led to more questions: “What about the girls who refuse any form of intimacy with a guy out of the context of engagement or marriage? Why do they do it? Because they firmly believe in it because it’s ‘haram‘ or ‘inappropriate’? (Then again I would understand if the reasons are religion-related) … Or are they disciplined/conservative and shy and timid just to keep appearances?”

Courtesy of Marwa Rakha's official website. The cartoon is a depiction of Rakha.

Think about it. It all could be a farce. The “conservative” leaning (“It’s not right to hold hands, or kiss a guy until they’re married” thing) could be there because of the inherent fear that the man –even if he pretends to be open-minded or understanding– might be traditional and judgmental.

In this case, it becomes not discipline per se but a very deep (perhaps subconscious) form of manipulation and deceit aimed at keeping the man close until marriage.

It makes me think. Is the shy/conservative/disciplined girl an illusion? Would she be as emotionally and physically disciplined, or “conservative”, if she was given a guarantee that the man won’t judge her or walk away if she’s not? May be. May be not. Only God knows.

And I think it’s impossible to know. Manipulation can run deep on both sides and many Egyptian men, save a good uncorrupted few, have not given women enough reason to trust them, to open up, and express themselves without reservations.

Without feeling the risk of being labelled depraved, or excuse me, a “whore”, many women are being over-cautious with simple physical expressions such as lying in the man’s arms or holding his hand.

And for many the reasoning is unflawed, then again, one could think, “what’s the use of being as honest and as free as you want, or what’s the use of doing what you feel is right, if it carries the risk of ending up alone?”

A few weeks later after reading both books, Love in Saudi and Rakha’s, I stood watching one of “Bussy’s” shows. The staged plays were about relationships in part between Egyptians, between friends, girls and cat-calling pedestrians, riders of the same bus, between classes, and many more. In one sketch, not a comedic one, a young man was complaining to his friend about “social inhibitions” and how they affected the most natural relationships.

He said that he didn’t want to have to be married to a girl to know her well and be able to spend time with her, without being labeled negatively. Along those lines, he said he wasn’t even seeking anything sexual but the natural progression of a relationship between two human beings who become close and intimate by sharing their lives and spending enough time alone together …

“I want to be able to invite her to my house, cook together, sit and listen to music and talk until the break of dawn, travel alone with her, etc, etc.”

I knew what he meant — I, too, wanted to share little pieces of myself with the one I choose. No hidden sexual motives. No stolen kisses. Instead, emotional nudity (which psychologist Rollo May argues opens us up and makes us more vulnerable than real nudity).

Precious moments. Simple requests. Simple pleasures. Complicated society.

Needless to say, when I asked Marwa, she briefly explained she was referring to “sex” in her book not hugging and holding hands. But sex, to be frank, has no place in my reflections, mainly because … well, admittedly I’m too conservative myself on this subject to be able to discuss it objectively.

And that’s that.

Listening to: nothing, the room is quiet
Mood: slightly dreamy, edging on contemplative
Wants from the Universe: Love

Young Reflections

A friend of a friend called Don Young wrote the following words and I found them to be an immaculate rendition of thoughts that haunt most of us, they touched me …

Young says, “We come up with rules, regulations and social norms for everything. We create these imagined realities for ourselves and then we read and write volumes upon volumes on topics such as how to find love, the rules of dating, the guide to successful marriages and so on so that we can learn how to do these things within the guidelines we have set out within our own imagined world …

The thing is though that shouldn’t these things be easy? Does any of it really mean anything when you really think about it? I mean, isn’t it all just really kind of silly, or is it just me?

Is it just me, or is everything and everyone just way too over complicated?

It seems to me that we need to eat, sleep and love … That’s it, that’s all. The rest is just a bunch of imagined nonsense that we create in order to give ourselves some sort of purpose or importance or justify our own greed.

If you really stop and think about it, does any of it matter? Is anything other than sustaining life and finding happiness simply in that, really anything other than nonsense? Ridiculous notions that we dream up as ways to separate ourselves from one another and waste our lives hoarding and hating and hurting each other; and for what? So at the end of our short little lives we can say we have won some sort of imaginary competition? So we can be dead and somehow feel better that our group has gained more ground over another?”

Listening to Brick City Love Song, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Mood: Thoughtful

I wrote this for him

I was sitting at this concert at Darb 1718 watching ‘El Dor El Awal’ whisk people away with their tunes to a far away world, when I remembered him.

His name was Khaled Mohamed Sai’d and he was beaten to death by two police officers. The reasons why are not important and, at least to me, irrelevant.

I had read the news this morning, and saw the pictures, they have shaken and disturbed me. But here I was on the same night, lying on the grass, listening to good music, laughing with my friends, playing with my hair and clapping and cheering for the band, as if no great injustice has befallen an innocent man. And it’s natural, I never knew him. And I won’t pretend that the news had affected me or stayed on my mind beyond a mere two or three hours after reading about it. Next week, I’ll probably forget him completely and the week after perhaps the name won’t even ring a bell — and mind you I’m a journalist so it’s not like my work doesn’t involve following up on these cases. However, there’s a big chance everything will be forgotten anyway and so it follows that his story might not be “sexy” enough (in journo lingo) to follow up on in a week or two.

But for a moment, I thought: What if I really cared? What if we all did?

What if the band, instead of playing, had come to the microphone to announce that Khaled had died brutally and so they will withhold their music until justice has been brought to his family, and to us?

What if we had decided to strike, not to go to work, not to buy or sell, or visit friends or watch TV or go to the movies until an investigation is held into his murder?

What if tomorrow no one showed up for Friday prayers and sheikhs gave angry sermons against our rulers to empty mosques in protest of this inhumane killing?

What if we all decided to wear black in mourning?

What if we brought everything to a standstill until we’re told why a young man’s bones were broken, face battered until every last breath left him and why on Earth is his assaulter running free?

But of course we wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t. Who does that anyway? And if we did that for every injustice that has befallen man, maybe life would have stopped … or maybe it would have been perfect. But we won’t know really.

And perhaps if I didn’t work in news, I’d forget about him tomorrow.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it?